As humanity traverses the precipice of ecological collapse, edging further into a century which promises everything but the survival of our species, climate change, peak resources and biodiversity loss present themselves as the seemingly insurmountable tasks of a civilisation in crisis. Faced with these challenges, those who preside over the existing order scramble to protect it. Everywhere, we are encouraged to channel environmental concern into a long and hard consideration of consumer choice. Packages in supermarket aisles scream blue murder at their cheap, child labour companions: “Shop ethically. Go fairtrade and organic.” Apparently, guilt is not the point. Conscious consumers should feel good about purchasing the products that speak to who they are. The commodity is a broad church, so why not join it in the marriage of profit and environmental justice? But the feel-good identities on sale are draped in a wedding veil which never quite conceals their two-faced nature. Unfortunately for the eco-capitalists, some of us won’t remain silent and forever hold our peace.
Enter the environmental non-government organisations. “Don’t shop, turn off the lights and live simply.” Their alternative – encapsulated by the World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour – seems more authentic, especially to anyone who appreciates the urgency of social-ecological change. No one appears to be profiteering, and world leaders from the UN to the Vatican give us a generous pat on the head for our good work. After all, what could be wrong with a small, if tokenistic attempt to draw attention to issues that consistently lose out to sport and hollywood in the media? Sadly, anyone whose political vision is not clouded by asceticism can see that the path we are treading lightly upon leads, literally, to a dead end. To walk on it is to conceive of ourselves as irredeemable units of greed and environmental destruction. Going beyond the hour can therefore mean little more than consuming less. Less food. Less water. Eventually, one presumes, less oxygen. This is not a joke. If Ban Ki Moon and the Pope are serious about our responsibility and power as (non)consumers to prevent ecological collapse, shouldn’t they be calling on us to evacuate the market, the biosphere and existence itself? Perhaps unluckily, they won’t. Doing so might reveal the inadequacy of the choice between commodity (a), commodity (b) or even no commodity at all as a response to the devastation of ecosystems on a global scale. It could even point us in the direction of political activities far less favourable to Earth Hour’s corporate supporters, such as CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm. And the WWF wouldn’t want to damage its delicate relationship with philanthropists.
All this is not to deny the beauty of people’s attempts to prevent the premature extinction of our species. We should all feel good about contributing, even in small ways, to a better world. But it’s important to be clear that the change humanity needs most cannot be delivered by the market or its boycott. Go beyond Earth Hour and the ideology which urges us never to seek transformative change. Leave the lights on and instead call a meeting of critical thinkers to discuss strategies for undermining the imperative of endless economic growth, in which politicians and bureaucratic environmental NGOs are utterly complicit. Reject, rather than embrace responsibility for the ecological crimes perpetrated by economic elites. You are not a mining magnate, chemical producer, industrial farmer, or factory owner. You should, however, have control over whether or not their attendant economic activities impact on the lives of anyone in your social and ecological community. Take it.